Spring Saison (A Few Words on Farmhouse Ales)

Goose Island's Matilda has got me thinking. American breweries are constantly experimenting with styles, trying to figure out when one's moment is right. It isn't always obvious. Tastes don't evolve linearly, light to dark, sweet to bitter, or small to big. Styles just pop up and find a constituency. Belgian wits, coffee stouts, red ales--all have had their moment. Yet in the US, Belgian styles (wits excepted) have never seemed to make it over the hump--no matter how much beer geeks and breweries love them.

I wonder--could farmhouse ales be the ones to break through?* I had a pint of Laurelwood's saison last night and considered the idea. The problem is, many Belgian beers are challenging. Even leaving aside the sour ales, the others have a reputation for being--well, often when I offer someone a Belgian of which I'm fond, they take an exploratory sip, give a hesitant nod, and agree, "Yes, it's a Belgian." I know then that I'll be (happily) drinking the rest of the bottle by myself.

(I've seen the same look on the faces of visitors who've just taken a pull on one of our radioactively hoppy local beers.)

Farmhouse ales, though, are really approachable. Take Laurelwood's saison. Brewed with wheat and oats, it is a gentle 5.2% alcohol and sports a mere 12 IBUs. Yet what depth! I don't know which yeast Chad used or how he made the beer (typically saisons need warmth and age), but he produced a beer with a lush yeast character--spicy, dry, and warm. You'd think that 12 IBUs would leave a beer treacly, and although the beer is on the sweet side, it seems to emerge from the esters--as you swallow the beer, it dries up on your tongue, leaving a quenching, clean finish. Saison yeasts tend to be very efficient. They gobble most available sugars, but produce sweet-tasting compounds in the process--the best of both worlds. It could be that I'm too far out in the weeds of weird styles to know what Joe Craftbeer likes, but I can't imagine anyone finding Laurelwood's saison challenging.

Beyond that, the class of beers is almost infinitely variable. Bières de garde can be sweet, saisons can be very hoppy, either style can be of mild strength or quite robust. The available yeast strains are quite versatile (Dupont's finicky version does pose challenges, however)--as Upright's range demonstrates.

Part of the issue is cultural: Belgian beers seem alien to Americans. Yet don't farmhouse ales fit neatly into the Northwest's farmer's-market fed food culture? As is our preference, farmhouse ales focus on the natural, local, and traditional. I don't expect to see actual fams start brewing, but getting local ingredients, organic ones, and adding local spices and flavors--that's already happening in most breweries. Why not the style that really celebrates local and handmade? Finally, farmhouse ales are among the best styles for pairing with food--and don't beg for traditional pub fare like stouts and pale ales.

In a few weeks, the Oregon Brewers Guild will sponsor the annual Cheers to Belgian Beers festival, wherein Oregon breweries make their own styles of beer from a single yeast strain. The past couple years have been rough--the yeasts were neither approachable nor versatile. But this year, the yeast is a saison strain. Perhaps at least one or two knock-your-socks-off stellar beers makes an appearance. If so, it will be a great chance to test my theory about their potentially broad appeal.

One can hope!
*I like the phrase "farmhouse" better than the more specific "saison" or "bière de garde." Since the styles have few parameters, using these names doesn't much help in describing a beer. And French words are just generally a bad way to try to sell things in America. "Farmhouse," though--there's a word we can all rally around.